Satirical Play Bites Hole in Arab Idealism

Departing from conventional Middle Eastern theater, an Egyptian production lampoons the region's foibles and proves a great hit

AN Iraqi bully, an ingratiating Jordanian, vain and grasping Gulf women, a dim and drunken Sudanese, an hysterical Libyan - Western stereotypes? Perhaps, but, more remarkably, they are also characters in a hit Egyptian play.

In a radical departure from conventional Middle Eastern theater, a less-than-reverent depiction of Arabs and their relations with each other has proved the year's hit sensation.

"In Fluent Arabic," a fast-paced play lasting almost four hours, was written by the well-known playwright Lenin Ramly. The director is one of Egypt's most popular comic actors, Muhammad Sobhy. The cast of 40 features 26 main characters. When the play was finally put on stage its first performances were so poorly attended that there were more actors on stage than ticket holders in the seats.

But within a week of its November opening, following favorable reviews in the Egyptian press, "In Fluent Arabic" was nightly turning people away. It has been playing to packed houses ever since.

Yet the play's premiere would have been unthinkable only a short while ago. Given its uncompromising picture of Arab hypocrisy and animosity between different Arab nations, its success is considered a cultural landmark.

It opens with a brilliant take-off on the ever-smiling Egyptian television announcer who asks the audience: "Do you want the whole truth about the Arab world or just a quarter?"

Set in Britain, the play tells the story of 14 Arab students, one of whom - a Palestinian - goes missing. The remaining students, in expansive gestures, proclaim their "brotherhood" and anguish over the missing man. Yet, when it comes time to do something, no one is willing or able to.

From beginning to end, the play lampoons not only the Arab differences but the region's state-controlled news media which perpetuates the myth of Arab solidarity.

Running parallel to the student's drama, is the story of an Arab film crew sent to Britain to complete a documentary on Arab unity. In the end, members of the film crew mutiny against the prevailing whitewash of Arab news.

Says one announcer to a colleague: "Please don't talk to me about Arab unity. Do you believe what you see on TV?" Her colleague replies: "We can say these things between ourselves but we can't show it to the people."

At a meeting to discuss their missing friend, the Arab students quickly fall out over who would lead the discussion. All agree, however, that they must not discuss "politics, religion, sex, morals - or football." Drawing heavily from real-life Arab League fiascos, the characters spend all their time arguing over who is allowed to speak and on whose behalf. One Arab ruefully concludes: "This just shows the dangers of democracy."

At one point the audience greets with hearty applause the line: "The only thing your leadership has agreed on is the suppression of your people."

After sneaking out to a disco, the students voice their fears if their families find out. Says the Syrian: "I could never go home." The Iraqi follows: "My father would butcher me." In unison the Arab students begin to lament their situation: "We have a problem. We have a problem," they say over and over again, their voices rising in helpless anguish with each repetition.

When one of the Gulf women calls them heroes they begin to quiver and shake at the implied responsibility.

As the Arab students gather their moral strength the women berate them: "You've always been losers. Maybe with us this time you'll win." When the men accept their offer, they reply: "Wait until we've fixed our make-up."

Egypt's state censor in fact requested Mr. Ramly to revise some details of the play. Remarkably, the censors seemed to have missed the entire message of the play. Their central concern was that the Arab students not be identified by individual nationality, no doubt for fear of offending other Arab states. Instead, the censors asked that all the characters merely be "Arabs."

If Ramly had agreed, it would have robbed his production of its greatest strength. In the end, he refused and the play went ahead as written.

The mere appearance of the Iraqi student sends the audience into waves of laughter - oversized and overbearing, he plays the thug throughout the play. Even his gestures - head held high and chest thrust forward - suggested the impersonation of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein himself.

The Jordanian student is a diminutive man bearing more than a passing resemblance to King Hussein. The Egyptian is a well-meaning but naive character who finds himself thrust into a central role by the indifference of his fellow Arab students.

Speaking in his small office at the 500-seat Misr New Opera theater, playwright Ramly told the Monitor of the play's less than auspicious beginnings.

Until last year, when Ramly and Mr. Sobhy began rehearsals, the play had languished for almost 20 years in a drawer, unread and unperformed. Ramly had just graduated from the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts when he began to write the play in 1970. He stopped after penning only three scenes.

"In 1970, I doubted that the audience would be ready to accept it," he said. "There's only a certain margin for freedom of expression that allows the saying of different things, contradictory or opposing viewpoints."

As he explained, he worried about the reception of not only the official censors but the public. "I thought even the actors would refuse to play the parts."

Today he says of his well-received work: "The play presents my point of view about the Arab world in 1970." He added, "The situation has remained almost unchanged."

It was only in the last year, following the formation of a new acting troupe, that Ramly and director Sobhy, went ahead with the long-overdue premiere.

Curiously, the playwright disregards suggestions that the Gulf war may have created a climate more appreciative of his biting satire. The war divided the Arab world between pro- and anti-Iraq camps and sharply exposed the region's strained inter-Arab relations. "The play has nothing to do with the war," he said.

While Ramly may deny its influence, the play has obviously been amended to reflect recent political events. One scene pits the Arab students against their British classmates. In the melee that follows, the Arab students battle not only with the British: at center stage the bullish Iraqi stands atop a fallen Gulf Arab, striking him about the head. With his free hand he makes the for victory sign.

Tending their wounds afterward, one Arab remarks of the street fight: "If we didn't have to run, I would have killed them all."

The Gulf Arab, nervously eyeing his Iraqi "brother" says: "He ignored all the foreigners and hit me instead!"

Ironically, "In Fluent Arabic" has drawn not only middle class and sophisticated Cairenes but also members of the ruling elite. Among the luminaries who have attended are President Mubarak's brother-in-law; a senior presidential adviser, Usama al-Baz; and the president's own spokesman, Muhammad Abdel Moniem.

Ramly says, smiling: "They said that they liked it."

The playwright is enjoying the rewards of his first major commercial hit - ecstatic reviews, a recent Arab award, plans to tour. But, as if to remind himself of its difficult journey to the stage, he keeps the original manuscript in his theater office.

The rumpled pages, covered in Ramly's small and concise handwriting, are yellowed with age now. But the words he penned so many years ago are more alive than ever.

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